Suffering & following Jesus go together

Of all things Jesus used a cross to talk about following him. A cross was used for killing criminals. A cross involved great suffering; it was an excruciatingly painful way to die. And to die on a cross was shameful. Only the lowest died this way, naked, on full display to the public. He used a cross in order to communicate a key truth about Christianity – suffering and following Jesus go together.

Jesus had to take the way of the cross – lowliness, suffering and death before God raised him up and blessed him. And the same is true for us.

This comes out clearly at a crucial transition in the center of the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 8. Jesus is rightly acknowledged as the Messiah (8:29). And so he immediately begins to teach his disciples what kind of Messiah he is. And he’s clear that he takes the lowly way of suffering and is about to die on a cross (8:31).

But Peter rebuked Jesus (8:32). This can’t be right! Peter was “seeing things merely from a human point of view” (8:33 NLT). He wanted a victorious Messiah reigning in worldly power in great pomp and circumstance.

And later James and John, the rest of Jesus’ inner circle, showed they were in the same place. In chapter 10 they saw the Messiah as one who is served, not one who serves; as one who lords it over others, not one who lays down his life (10:42-45). And they wanted the two highest seats next to Jesus in his earthly glory.

All three of Jesus’ closest disciples had their hearts set, not on the way of the cross – but on what we can call – the way of glory. The way of glory emphasizes this world and what it has to offer. It’s about moving up and gaining what you can of power, honor, wealth and comfort.

But not only did Jesus take the way of the cross, he calls any who follow him to do the same. As he said after rebuking Peter, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ life of lowliness, self-denial and suffering is our model. Just as Jesus’ life was cruciform, our lives are to be cross shaped as well; marked by lowliness, self-denial and suffering. Suffering and following Jesus go together.

Now, our Christian lives are not just about suffering. Perhaps it’s helpful to talk about –

Three types of Christianity

 Before I noted the ‘already – not yet’ character of the kingdom of God; how God’s salvation has come – but it’s not yet all the way here. This idea helps us to spell out these three types.

1. “Not yet” Christianity. In this view our current lives are only about lowliness and suffering. God gives us the grace of his forgiveness, but little changes in us, nor does God work through us in powerful ways. (This view minimizes discipleship because we are not really able to follow Jesus.)

On the “already – not yet” scale, there’s very little of the kingdom here now and almost everything is yet to come. This is, I believe, an anemic form of Christianity.

And then there’s 2. “Already” Christianity. God’s kingdom has come in power; it’s here, except for the resurrection. And the kingdom is not about suffering but about earthly power, honor, wealth and comfort.It includes these things now.

On the “already – not yet” scale, almost all of the kingdom is here now and only a little is yet to come. This is a Christianity of glory.

  • The “super apostles” who boasted of their pedigree and gifts and exalted themselves over others are an example of this view (2 Corinthians 10-12).
  • Another example is when Christians seek to run the world now through the State and politics, as if their nation was the kingdom of God. Jesus will rule the world, but not until he returns. (This view minimizes discipleship because we have to have a low enough ethic to run the world, which involves an eye for an eye.)
  • Another illustration is when Christians teach that Jesus is the one who gives us the ‘American dream.’ God wants us to always have health and wealth here and now.

Instead of lowliness, this emphasizes being lifted up now.

If the first view overemphasizes our current lowliness and suffering, and the second overemphasizes our current freedom from lowliness and suffering, the final view presents the right balance.

3. “Already and not yet” ChristianityYes, this life will have its share of lowliness and suffering, because suffering and following Jesus go together. But it’s also true that the Spirit is working in and through us in powerful ways to make the kingdom real now. Yes, this life is not where we should seek out power, honor, wealth and comfort, but God gives us victory in all things.

On the “already – not yet” scale, this is in the middle. Much of the kingdom is here, but much is yet to come for sure. And just to be clear, what I’m saying is that this is New Testament Christianity.

Jesus is our model right? He calls us to follow him. And no one was more lowly or suffered like Jesus. But also no one was as full of the power of the Spirit to do great things for the kingdom as he.

We have to understand that lowliness and suffering, and the power of the Spirit go hand in hand. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7 – “We have this treasure (the kingdom or the presence of the Spirit) in jars of clay (our weak, broken bodies), to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Here we see weakness and surpassing power together in us at the same time. God said to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “My grace (in lowliness and suffering) is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” There is weakness and there is God’s power in our lives, not one or the other.

The fullness of power, honor, wealth and well-being come when the fullness of the kingdom comes. And it comes from God, not people. And it comes precisely to those who are now lowly, deny themselves and suffer for the kingdom. (This view maximizes discipleship. We are called to take up our cross and the Spirit empowers us to do just this. Lowliness and power are held in balance.)

Jesus talks in several places about how –

A great reversal is coming

Those who are high and exalted now, will be lowered and those who are low now, will be exalted. For instance in Matthew 23:12 he says – “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled,and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Those who lift themselves up seeking power, honor, wealth and comfort will be humbled, that is, God will bring them low. But whoever is lowly now for the sake of the kingdom, God will lift up on that day.

This reversal is stated in very stark terms in the beatitudes of Luke 6:20-26. Just to take one example, Blessed are you who are poor; for yours is the kingdom of God.”(v. 20). And“woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (v. 24) Jesus tells us that those who compromise their faith to seek wealth (and also food, entertainment and reputation) will not enter the kingdom. But those who are lowly and suffer for faithfulness to the kingdom, that is, they experience poverty for this (and also hunger, weeping and slander) these faithful ones will enter the fullness of the kingdom.

In Mark 8:35 Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” If we seek to save, preserve or focus on our life in this world, we will lose our life. But if we give up everything, deny ourselves and suffer for Jesus (Mark 8:34) we will find our lives in the fullness of the kingdom.

It is those who now follow Jesus in the way of the cross in lowliness, self-denial and suffering who will experience the promises of exaltation and blessing on that day.

Let me end with –

Some things to remember about suffering

 We shouldn’t glorify it. Suffering is terrible and without our faith in God it can crush and destroy us. Jesus didn’t seek the suffering of the cross, but rather prayed to avoid it (Mark 14:36). And Hebrews 12:2 tells us that although Jesus “endured the cross” he also “despised the shame.”

The end we all want is peace and well-being, when there will be no more suffering or tears. We’re able to rejoice in suffering, not because we enjoy it. No, this would be a sign of sickness. We can rejoice in suffering because it demonstrates that the kingdom is ours (Matthew 5:10).

The way of the cross is foolishness to the flesh and the world. As Paul said, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . ..” (1 Corinthians 1:18a). It looks like a good way to miss out on all that this life has to offer. “Lower yourself and accept suffering and then trust God to lift you up? And most of this won’t take place until the final day? That’s crazy!”

  • Just as the disciples – Peter, James and John didn’t understand it and Peter tried to talk Jesus out of it, so we struggle with it today.
  • Just as the powers of this world didn’t understand it when they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8) so they don’t now.

Despite this, the way of the cross is how God brings about his purposes in this world. It is folly to the world, but as the rest of 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “but to us who are being saved the word of the cross is the power of God.” The wisdom of this world is all about the way of glory – seek and strive for what you can get in this life; lift yourself up to obtain power, honor, wealth and well-being.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are . . ..” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). This is God’s “secret and hidden wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:7). This is how God overthrows evil and establishes his kingdom in this world.

The path to resurrection

As we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection today, we rightly think of the glory of our risen Lord.

We think, for instance, of how he was transfigured into a glorious new existence. Revelation 1:13-16 describes him in this way, “one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. . . and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”

We also rightly think of his glory as he is seated at the right hand of God being honored and glorified above all.

But we need to remember what came before all this. First he walked a lowly path, without glory at all. And there’s a connection between this lowly path and the glory of the resurrection. And the connection is this, the one has to come before the other – lowliness before glory.

And this is something that we need to take note of all of us who have set our hope on being raised up on the last day. And in fact, Jesus calls us to this very thing – to take note of his teaching and example and to follow him on the lowly path that leads to resurrection. Let’s look at this.

First, before the glory of the resurrection, comes –

The way of humility

Jesus taught us to be humble. He said, “He who humbles himself will be exalted” – Luke 14:11. In context here, he’s talking about taking the lowest place at a banquet, that is, not seeking out honor or social status. This saying is also used in other places (Luke 18:14, James 4:10) to talk about recognizing our failures and sins and repenting of them. This is a part of what humility means.

So Jesus is saying that it is the humble who will be exalted by God to a place of honor. And this certainly includes on the day of resurrection.

Jesus also modeled humility. He gave up seeking out social status and honor and put himself on the bottom.

  • He became human. Although, John tells us, in the beginning he “was with God, and (he) was God . . . he became flesh and dwelt among us” – John 1:1, 14. As Paul said, “though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing” – Philippians 2:6-7.
  • He was homeless. As he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” – Matthew 8:20.
  • He was dependent on others for food and shelter.Luke 8:2-3 speaks of several women disciples “who provided for (Jesus and the 12) out of their means.”

Jesus took up a very low social place.

And just as he taught he was raised to a place of honor at the right hand of God. So we learn from Jesus’ teaching and example that first comes humility, and then comes exaltation – being raised up by God to a place of honor on the final day. And without humility we will not be exalted. For Jesus also said in Luke 14:11, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,” that is by God. If we are busy lifting ourselves up we will not be lifted up by God on the final day. It’s only those who humble themselves who will be exalted in the resurrection.

Also before the glory of the resurrection, comes –

 The way of serving others

Jesus taught us to minister to the needs of others. He said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” – Mark 9:35. He’s talking about lowering ourselves to the lowest place in order to serve the needs of others.

So Jesus is saying that those who make themselves last, are the ones whom God will make first on the final day.

Jesus also modeled being a servant to others. He placed himself below others in order to minister to their needs. As he said, “The Son of man came not to be served but to serve.” – Mark 10:45. He served those who were lowly in that day – women, children, outcasts and the poor. He sought to bless them and lift them up. He served as:

  • He taught people God’s way – He said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God” – Luke 4:43.
  • He healed people – Scripture says he healed “every disease and every affliction among the people” – Matthew 4:23.
  • He set people free from demons – As the crowd said, “he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” – Mark 1:27.

He became last of all and servant of all.

And just as he taught he was raised to the first place in all of creation, above all powers and authorities. He is indeed the first-born of all creation (Colossians 1:15). So we learn from Jesus’ teaching and example that first comes lowly servanthood, being last and then comes being first. And without being last, we will not be made first by God. For Jesus also said, “the first will be last” – Luke 13:30. If we busy putting ourselves first in this life we will find ourselves in the last place on the final day. It’s only those who serve others who will be given the highest status in the resurrection.

Another example, before the glory of the resurrection, comes –

The way of rejection

Jesus taught us that we will suffer for our faith in him. He said, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” – Luke 6:22-23. We are to accept whatever rejection comes our way because of our faith in Jesus.

So Jesus is saying that those who accept persecution will be “blessed.” Their “reward is great in heaven,” waiting for them on that final day.

Jesus also modeled for us righteous suffering.

  • He was slandered – being called a false prophet and a blasphemer – Mark 14:64.
  • He suffered injustice from the Jewish and Gentile authorities – Mark 15:15.
  • He was shamed – being spit on, mocked, ridiculed and taunted – Mark 14:65; 15:16-20.
  • He was beaten and scourged – Mark 15:15.

Jesus was severely persecuted.

And just as he taught he was blessed for his acceptance of rejection. He received his reward when God raised him from the dead. So we learn from Jesus’ teaching and example that first comes rejection for our faith, and then comes the blessing of God, an eternal reward from God on the final day. And without accepting persecution we will not be blessed. For Jesus also said, “Woe to you” speaking of those who compromise, so that they don’t have to suffer for their faith. He teaches us that the only reward and blessing such will have is what they get in this life. There will be nothing for them in the next life – Luke 6:24-26. It’s only those who accept rejection for their faith who will be blessed in the resurrection.

Finally, before the glory of the resurrection, comes –

The way of death

Jesus taught us to lose our lives. He said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” – Mark 8:35. In context, to lose your life is to deny yourself, to take up your cross; to give up your life for Jesus. And we are to do this in smaller ways even daily – Luke 9:23. The phrase, “to save your life” comes to us in different versions: It means that you will “find it” – Matthew 16:25; you will “keep it” – Luke 17:33 on the final day. It means that you “will keep it for eternal life” – John 12:25. This is talking about resurrection.

Jesus also modeled for us losing his life.

  • He gave up his life every day. He denied himself to serve others, as we have seen.
  • He was crucified and killed –  Mark 15:34, 37.

And just as he taught, since Jesus lost his life, he saved his life. He found his life in the resurrection. So we learn from Jesus’ teaching and example that first comes losing one’s life, and then comes saving one’s life. And without losing our lives, we will not save our lives. For Jesus also said, “Whoever seeks to preserve his (earthly) life will lose it” – Luke 17:33. It’s only those who take up their cross and lose their lives in service to God, who will find their lives in the resurrection.

So for us who have set our hope, not on this life, but on the life to come, and the resurrection of the dead –

Jesus shows us the way

He is, after all, the Risen One. And he shows us the path that all must take. First comes lowliness, servanthood, rejection and death. And then and only then comes resurrection – new life, blessing, being first and exaltation.

May God strengthen us to take the lowly way, so that we may each find the glory that God desires for us.

The cruciform shape of baptism

Series on baptism

We spent time last week looking at baptism and how it symbolically portrays the story of how God saves us. We got help in understanding this by looking back to several Old Testament water-crossing events, which also tell stories of salvation through water. For instance, Noah and the flood – the story of the salvation of humanity. And especially the crossing of the Red Sea – the story of Israel’s salvation from Egypt.

But my point today is that all of these stories of salvation are figures, types and foreshadowings. As I said before they are background. They look forward beyond themselves to another story; to the water crossing of all water crossings; to the story of salvation. And it is this that I want us to focus on, because this gives us further understanding into the meaning of water baptism.

Turn with me to the story of –

Jesus’ water baptism

Matthew 3:13-17 – 13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

John is hesitant to baptize Jesus because his baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus has no sin. So, John is saying, why should I baptize you? I need your baptism of the Spirit! But Jesus insists, because this becomes an opportunity for John to fulfill his purpose to reveal Jesus as the Messiah and for Jesus to begin his ministry as the Messiah.

16And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Here is the five-fold pattern of Jesus’ water baptism:

1. When Jesus comes to the waters, he portrays that he is leaving behind his normal life to take up his ministry and calling.

2. By going through the waters he portrays that he is (already) free from sin and the powers of evil. With us baptism pictures our being forgiven and set free. For Jesus it’s simply a testimony to his freedom and sinlessness. God confirms this when he says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” There is no sin here. He doesn’t have to be saved, he is the Savior.

3. When he comes up out of the waters the Spirit comes as a dove upon him (think Noah). This is to anoint him to fulfill his mission. And of course this is where we get the word Messiah, or Christ, both of which mean “the anointed one.”

4. When he comes up out of the waters he is revealed as the new Israel; the leader of the remnant of the people of God, that John has gathered. He is identified as God’s son, a phrase that can refer to Israel in the Old Testament (Hosea 11:1; 1 Chronicles 22:10 describes the king/Messiah in these terms). Finally, a faithful Israel has come to fulfill God’s purposes.

5. After he comes up out of the waters he goes on into the desert (like Israel) where he shows his commitment to obey God. Right? Just after this Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).

So this is an important water crossing, but this isn’t the story we’re looking for! This is a significant story, but it, like all the others, only points ahead to the real story; to Jesus’ real baptism. No, the story of salvation that we are looking for; the water crossing of all water crossings is the cross and resurrection of Jesus. So let’s look now at –

Jesus’ death and resurrection as a baptism

  • In Mark 10:38, speaking of his death Jesus says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” He calls his death a baptism.
  • In Luke 12:50, again, speaking of his death, he says,  “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 9:31 – “exodus”)
  • In a similar vein, in Matthew 12:39-40 Jesus says his death will be like Jonah’s water crossing. The story of Jonah is a classic water crossing. And Jesus makes this connection.

That he would use this “waters,” “baptism” language should not surprise us, when we think of what the waters mean: distress, testing, judgment, death. This certainly fits his cross experience.

Let’s look briefly now at Jesus’ death and resurrection as a water crossing:

  • The waters – Satan, judgment & Death – overtook Jesus, killing him. He was dead.
  • But God acted. These powers had no right to touch Jesus, he was sinless. So God intervened on behalf of the innocent Jesus.

1. Jesus leaves behind this world, the old creation that is passing away.

2. Jesus is set free from the powers of judgment and death; he passes through the waters.

3. Jesus is resurrected to new life by the Spirit. He has a new resurrection body.

4. Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity. The first born from the dead and the first fruits of many more to come (1 Corinthians 15:22-23; Colossians 1:18.)

5. Jesus rules in righteousness at the right hand of God. He works to subject the powers, until finally death is overcome. And then he will hand the kingdom over to God (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

Now let’s make the connection between –

Jesus’ cross baptism and water baptism

Again, my point in all of this is to show that Jesus’ cross baptism is not just another water crossing, it is the water crossing of all water crossings. And as such it affects how we think about Christian water baptism. Baptism now has a cruciform shape. It is cross shaped.

This shows up clearly in Paul. When Paul talks about Christian water baptism, it is always in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection (In fact, Jesus’ water baptism is nowhere referenced in relation to our Christian water baptism).

Romans 6:2-7 – “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”

Let me show you two ways that water baptism is cruciform from this passage. Water baptism symbolically portrays our death and resurrection. Or in other words the five themes of water baptism can be summarized by the cruciform rubric of death and resurrection.

 Let’s look at this in our text. The theme of  1. leaving behind/repentance matches – “we who died to sin” – v. 2. The theme of 2. set free/forgiven lines up with – “For one who has died has been set free from sin” – v. 7. This is about our death to the old.

The next three themes have to with resurrection to new life. 3. New life, 4. part of a new people and 5. a new way of living in obedience to God is described by Paul in the phrase – “newness of life” – v. 4. As well as the various references to resurrection.

So the five themes are cruciform. To pass through the waters, put simply, is to die and then be raised to new life.

Second, water baptism symbolically portrays our dying and rising with Jesus. First, we go with him through his death:

  • “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” – v. 4
  • “We know that our old self was crucified with him” – v. 6

 Then we are raised to new life with him:

  • Just as Christ was raised from the dead . . . we too” are raised – v. 4
  • We are “united with him in a resurrection like his” – v. 5

With regard to the symbolic meaning of baptism, we are not just going through the waters; we are going through the waters of Jesus’ cross baptism. In our water baptism we reenact, as it were, Jesus’ cross baptism.

What does it all mean?

It means that baptism is a cruciform marker. Those who receive it are marked by the cross of Jesus. It’s as if it is branded on our forehead. And we are now to live cruciform lives.

This is a life that is characterized by our dying and being raised. We die to sin and to the world and are empowered to live new lives of righteousness by the Spirit. We deny ourselves; our comfort our self-centeredness and are empowered to love others by the Spirit. We lay down our lives for others and we find true life in God.

Jesus’ story is now our story, and we are to live this way every day, on his behalf and for those who don’t know him. And we do this until we literally die and then when Jesus returns we are literally resurrected.

This is what our baptism was about. And that is what our lives are to be about.